The year I first swam in the Mediterranean. The year my wife became pregnant again. The year I finally finished Homage to Catalonia. The year I finally began a new novel. The year I fell in love with Diego Velázquez. The year of questionable decisions in a Neapolitan disco. The year I learned about kombucha. The year I would move overseas for a while. The year I would sometimes wonder why I’d ever come back. The year of the Trump hole. The year of YouTubing Mr. Rogers for self-medication. The year everybody needed to get the f*** off the Internet. The year of spectacular mid-Atlantic fall.
I’ve always believed in the idea of a zeitgeist, but there are years when the local topography feels especially entangled with the global map. 2016, for me at least, was not one of those. When I look back, I can’t avoid the sense of democratic crisis in Europe, or the open conflagration in the Middle East, or the airborne toxic event that was the U.S. presidential election. Winter may well be coming. Yet I also remember, at the more intimate level on which life is mostly lived, moments of mystery, adventure, and grace that seem connected to some other story entirely. Nowhere were those moments more readily available than in the books I chose to read. Perhaps it’s most accurate to say, then, that 2016 was a year that gave me plenty of reasons to keep reading.
As ever, it’s hard to settle on a single title to recommend above any other, but I think I can get the list of absolute best things I read this year down to four. Around the start of a three-month sojourn in Barcelona, I tackled Javier Cercas’s The Anatomy of a Moment, and found it to be be one of the most penetrating, mature, and nuanced books about politics ever written. Cercas’s ostensible subject is the coup that nearly toppled Spain’s fragile democracy in the early ’80s. It’s a story he unfolds with a characteristic blend of factual scruple and novelistic technique: the pacing is Three Days of the Condor by way of 24 Hour Psycho. Underneath, though, is an argument about heroism that feels both true and profoundly at odds with our usual assumptions. In the context of a government of men, Cercas suggests, real and durable greatness is marked by compromises, trade-offs, disappointments, and missed opportunities, rather than their absence. Not to give away the ending, but maybe politics is more like real life than we’d like to imagine.
While in Iberia, I also read José Saramago’s Blindness, and immediately regretted the 20 years it took me to pick it up. It, too, works as a kind of political allegory, with hard-to-miss Platonic overtones, but even more than Cercas, Saramago sees power relations as emergent properties of the whole rich mess of human experience: love, sex, death, community. That he can convey this richness with such impoverished means — the characters are all, for most of the novel, imprisoned in a building they can’t see — is a miracle of art. As beautiful and harrowing as its obvious model, The Plague (and for my money more lifelike in its intimacies), this is a novel people will still be reading in 100 years, if they’re still reading at all. Or indeed, still alive on planet Earth.
Another discovery for me this year, though of a different sort, was the Finnish-Swedish author and illustrator Tove Jansson. Best known for her ingenious Moomin comics, Jansson also wrote several books aimed at adults, including the The Summer Book. Not much happens in this portrait of a headstrong girl and her equally headstrong grandmother and the island where they spend their summers, but that’s the novel’s great virtue. The Summer Book is pure loveliness. The movements of tides and winds and boats and insects loom larger for our narrator than the currents of history, and the profound quiet of the setting — I’m reminded of Akhil Sharma’s description of a prose like “white light” — allows us to hear Jansson’s unsparing and ironic tenderness, a tone that remains purely her own, even in translation.
The fourth of my European discoveries this year was Christopher Isherwood. I was on my way to Berlin and, like the guy who wears the concert tee-shirt to the actual concert, decided to take Goodbye to Berlin. What drew me in initially was Isherwood’s (to my ear) flawless prose, which by itself would put him in a select group of 20th-century English novelists. But the real rewards were the book’s surprising scope and depth. For my money, Isherwood and his fictional avatar cast a more comprehensive eye on their moment than Evelyn Waugh or Henry Green or even Graham Greene. The novel walks the tragicomic line with an irreproachable poker face, and so maybe sets an example for us all in these shall-we-say interesting times.
Later, back on U.S. soil, I found myself allergic to my traditional time-waster, the newspaper, and so tried to escape into the news of other periods, to restore some perspective. Around the time of the party conventions, I read Miami and the Siege of Chicago, and (though it’s an odd kind of compliment) found it to be Norman Mailer’s most disciplined performance, and one that still resonates today. Barbarians at the Gate, which I found for a dollar at a library book sale in Maine, has likewise aged well, in part because the rank self-dealing it depicts now seems a kind of national ethos. As for Volker Ullrich’s Hitler: The Ascent…well, I guess it says something that I turned to this for refuge. Much was made earlier this year of certain historical parallels, but even as it reminds us that “it can happen here,” the book is also detailed enough to illuminate the ways it’s not happening here, not yet, and needn’t ever, unless we let it.
As for contemporary fiction, I read a lot of what you might call flaneurial fiction, fiction in the shadow of W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, and maybe Robert Walser’s The Walk. I finally read, for example, Teju Cole’s Open City, a New York novel of exquisite intelligence and refinement, weaving together urban anomie, the history of Dutch colonialism, and the aftermath of September 11. I read Valeria Luiselli’s haunting debut, Faces in the Crowd (which does the same for Harlem, potted plants, and Federico García Lorca), and Álvaro Enrigue’s psychedelic Sudden Death (Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, tennis, the conquest of the Americas). Then, in search of further antecedents, I read, belatedly, Enrique Vila-Matas’s Bartleby & Co., whose wit and melancholy sent me on a Vila-Matas bender.
In a somewhat different vein, I read Amit Chaudhuri’s beautiful Odysseus Abroad and Geoff Dyer’s Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi. These are flaneurial novels in the sense of being plotless, but for the essayistic digressions of a Cole or a Luiselli, they substitute the momentum of a quest, a walk with a destination. And each, I think, further complicates the ongoing debate about fictiveness and authenticity. Though neither hides its “reality hunger,” exactly, each deploys on its autobiographical material a novelistic imagination as powerful as anything in Charles Dickens…it’s just tucked in the corners, where you don’t quite notice it. The result in each case is a work where the world and the word are beautifully in balance. (In August, when I finally got around to Paula Fox’s Desperate Characters, I was reminded that this subtle form of transformation is an old-fashioned form of magic.)
As for current fiction that more fully gratifies my own imagination hunger, I can point to Javier Marías’s Thus Bad Begins, a tour de force of wit, suspense, and history. I can point to Nathan Hill’s The Nix, whose disparate concerns — video games, parental neglect, political anger — are bound together by the warmth, charm, and wit of the author’s voice. And I can point to Don DeLillo’s Zero K, whose extraordinary final pages seem a capstone for the author’s work of the last 20 years. To quote DeLillo himself (writing of Harold Brodkey), it’s been one of “the great brave journeys of American literature.”
Finally, speaking of great, brave journeys, I can’t look back on this year without talking about Go Down, Moses. I’ve been reading my way through the Faulkner oeuvre for almost 20 years now, and am down to what I think of as the “third shelf;” soon I’ll be left with only Requiem for a Nun and Soldier’s Pay. I’ve put off reading GD,M in its entirety because many of the short stories it collects are available in other forms; I don’t know how many different versions of “The Bear” I’ve read in my lifetime. But Go Down, Moses, taken as a whole, is really a novel, and one that reminds me of all the novel can do, as in this description of Sam Feathers’s wilderness grave:
the tree, the other axle-grease tin nailed to the trunk, but weathered, rusted, alien too yet healed already into the wilderness’ concordant generality, raising no tuneless note, and empty, long since empty of the food and tobacco he had put into it that day, as empty of that as it would presently be of this which he drew from his pocket — the twist of tobacco, the new bandanna handkerchief, the small paper sack of the peppermint candy which Sam had used to love; that gone, too, almost before he had turned his back, not vanished but merely translated into the myriad life which printed the dark mold of these secret and sunless places.
The dark mold, the secret and sunless places, yes, but also the axle-grease and the peppermint candy, the specific, local, and alive, and the living generality that heals it all together. It’s an act of imagination on Faulkner’s part, and on his reader’s, but no less real — in fact more real — for it. And maybe in the most sunless part of this generally dark year, that’s reason enough for hope.
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A few days ago, our own Kaulie Lewis pointed readers to a LARB essay about Geoff Dyer, which nicely complemented a piece about the author our own Mark O’Connell wrote for Slate back in June. Now, at Full-Stop, David Burr Gerard suggests that Dyer’s strengths, which worked so well in Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, may have hampered him in Another Great Day at Sea. FYI, our own Janet Potter reviewed the latter book for The Millions.
It’s slightly embarrassing to have to admit that the best book you read all year was Anna Karenina. It’s a bit like saying that you’ve been listening to an album called Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club by these Beatles kids out of Liverpool and that, yes, you can confidently reveal that they were definitely onto something. At the risk of redundancy, Anna Karenina (which I finally got around to reading this year) is pretty much the Platonic ideal of the great novel. The most astounding thing about it for me is Tolstoy’s seemingly infinite compassion for his characters. It’s almost inhuman how fully present he makes these people. Reading it, I kept thinking of that much-quoted bit of Stephen Dedalus bluster about how “the artist, like the God of creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails.” There is something god-like about the simultaneous breadth and intensity of Tolstoy’s vision here, but there’s nothing remote or indifferent about it. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book where so many characters are portrayed with such clarity and empathy. He didn’t seem to create characters for instrumental reasons; no one is there just to bring the plot forward or to create a situation for someone more central than themselves. If he introduces a character, he also makes you see the world from their point of view (even Levin’s dog Laska has her moment in the free indirect narrative spotlight). His compassion and clarity are such that I often found myself thinking that if God existed and had sat down to write a novel, this is what it would look like. So yes, this Lev Tolstoy kid out of Yasnaya Polyana is definitely one to watch. You heard it here first.
As for less canonically enshrined books, I read two very powerful works of fiction in 2011 dealing with the theme of suicide. The first was David Vann’s Legend of a Suicide, a collection of linked stories and a novella. Here, Vann approaches the central biographical fact of his own father’s suicide from a range of fictional starting points. The novella, “Sukkwan Island,” is one of the most harrowing and moving pieces of fiction I’ve read in a very long time. In it, Vann inverts the reality of his father’s death, staging a hostile takeover of fact on behalf of fiction. It’s a really extraordinary piece of writing, and it takes the reader to a harsh and terrifying place. If you want to remind yourself of how literature can be a matter of life and death, this is a book you need to read.
Edouard Levé’s novel Suicide, which I wrote about for The Millions back in July, also really shook me up. As I mentioned in that piece, it’s nearly impossible to separate a reading of this book from the knowledge that Levé took his own life within a few days of having completed it. But on its own terms, its a bleak and beautiful exploration of self-alienation, marked by a sustained mood of quiet despair. The fact that it is written entirely in the second person — the subject of the narrative, with whose suicide the novel opens, is only ever referred to as “you” — forces the reader into a strangely schizoid position. Levé’s “you” addresses itself at once to the first, second, and third persons, and so the distinctions between author, protagonist, and reader become unsettlingly nebulous. Take a number of deep breaths, read it in one sitting, and go for a long walk afterwards. (As great as both Vann’s and Levé’s books are, by the way, I wouldn’t recommend reading them back-to-back in any kind of double bill.)
Along with everyone else in the world, it seems, I fell pretty hard for Geoff Dyer this year. I had a great time with Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, and I’ve since gone on an extended binge. Right now, I’m reading But Beautiful, his book about jazz, and Working the Room, his recent collection of essays and reviews. (Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It and Out of Sheer Rage are lined up and ready to go.) I’m pretty sure no author since Proust has spun so much great material out of pastries — what Dyer doesn’t see fit to tell us about cappuccinos, doughnuts, and croissants isn’t worth knowing. I’m not sure whether we actually need a Laureate of Elevenses, but if we do, this is our guy. Dyer is one of those people who could bang out a book on just about any subject and it would be more or less guaranteed to be interesting.
The same could be said for Nicholson Baker, whose House of Holes had a higher guffaw-to-page ratio than any other book I read this year. It’s ridiculously, euphorically filthy and yet strangely innocent, in a way that seems to me to be unique to Baker. But House of Holes is not really about sex, any more than The Mezzanine was about office work or Room Temperature was about child rearing. Sex provides a useful and fertile pretext for exercising what seems to me to be the animating principal of all his fiction: the absurd and fantastic possibilities of language itself. But don’t, for God’s sake, read it on public transport, or in the presence of anyone to whom you wouldn’t be willing to explain the cause of your snickering.
The novel that I really fell in love with this year, though, was Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead. She writes prose as beautifully as any living writer in English, but what makes her work so special is that its beauty seems to emanate as much from a moral as an aesthetic sensibility. I read Gilead not long after I saw Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, and I was struck by the similarities between these two works of art. Both Robinson’s exquisite sentences and Malick’s stunning visual compositions are animated by a sense of wonder at the beauty, strangeness and sadness of the world. They are both religious artists, and they each confront metaphysical themes, but what comes across most strongly in both works is their creators’ amazing ability to capture and heighten the beauty of everyday things. Robison does with her sentences, in other words, what Malick does with his camera. Reading this book reminded me of something Updike once said about Nabokov — that he “writes prose the only way it should be written, that is, ecstatically.” In this passage, the dying narrator, the Rev. John Ames, recalls a simple vision of the beauty of water:
There was a young couple strolling along half a block ahead of me. The sun had come up brilliantly after a heavy rain, and the trees were glistening and very wet. On some impulse, plain exuberance, I suppose, the fellow jumped up and caught hold of a branch, and a storm of luminous water came pouring down on the two of them, and they laughed and took off running, the girl sweeping water off her hair and her dress as if she were a little bit disgusted, but she wasn’t. It was a beautiful thing to see, like something from a myth. I don’t know why I thought of that now, except perhaps because it is easy to believe in such moments that water was made primarily for blessing, and only secondarily for growing vegetables or doing the wash. I wish I had paid more attention to it. My list of regrets may seem unusual, but who can know that they are, really. This is an interesting planet. It deserves all the attention you can give it.
If you haven’t turned into James Wood by the time you reach the end of that passage, there’s no hope for you. (Go on, let it out: “How fine that is!”) It’s extremely difficult to pull off something that simple, and I can’t think of many other novelists with the skill to do it. Marilynne Robinson’s writing is like water, like the world: it’s a blessing, and it deserves all the attention you can give it.
I read some great non-fiction this year, too. John D’Agata’s book About a Mountain is a lot of things at once. It’s a journalistic account of the almost literally unthinkable effects of nuclear waste. It’s an obliquely impressionistic depiction of the city of Las Vegas. And it’s an attempt to imaginatively reconstruct the suicide of a teenager. I didn’t always like the book, and its not by any means an unqualified triumph, but I certainly admired it. It’s a reminder of the Montaignian origins of the word “essay” (which we get from the French word for “trial” or “attempt”). The essay, at its best, is an open-ended, explorative form, and D’Agata is an exciting example of what a gifted writer can do with it. I also read Between Parentheses, the collection of Roberto Bolaño’s essays, reviews and speeches published this year by New Directions. I wrote about it for the second issue of Stonecutter (a wonderfully old school paper and ink literary journal whose first issue was itself one of the highlights of my reading year) and relished every sentence. Among its numberless pleasures is this quintessentially Bolañoesque definition of great writing: “So what is top-notch writing? The same thing it’s always been: the ability to sprint along the edge of the precipice: to one side the bottomless abyss and to the other the faces you love, the smiling faces you love, and books and friends and food, and the ability to accept what you find, even though it may be heavier than the stones over the graves of all the dead writers.” Almost every book that I loved over the last year satisfied this definition in some way. As, I’m sure, will every book I love in the next.
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Late last summer, I read Nicholson Baker’s U & I, which, though I can’t recall the reasons, I can’t recommend enough. Published in 1991, U & I chronicles Baker’s obsessive fascination with that most pale of prose geniuses, John Updike, even while admitting he is by no means a completist and hasn’t read all of Updike’s books. I was visiting my then-girlfriend in New York while reading U & I, and from the first sentence I was so devoted that one day I carried it onto the subway between Manhattan and Brooklyn, where I was meeting an old friend to watch football and drink beer. I could barely endure the torturously hot subway station, though, and as I waited for my train in the heat I felt like I had hot coals tucked into my armpits. The subway car, by contrast, was so cool and Baker’s self-deprecations so engrossing that I remember this brief period (probably something like a half hour) as one of the most pleasurable reading experiences of my entire life.
The problem now is my absent memory of Baker’s book. I can conjure up an image of its cover, which isn’t, frankly, all that memorable, but my mental storage unit is empty when I go looking for eloquent Bakerisms. Second, even the “plot,” such as it is with Nicholson Baker, escapes me. I vaguely remember Baker explaining how his mother had a conniption fit laughing at some humorous essay of Updike’s, a piece where he described a divot in a golf course being “big as a t-shirt.” I also have a foggy memory of Baker meeting Updike at some Harvard gathering, where he allows Updike to believe that he—Baker—also attended that august institution. It goes further. I can’t remember Baker’s first novel, The Mezzanine, either, although I read it last summer, too. His most recent novel, The Anthologist, which I devoured after A Box of Matches, another Baker book, also remains mostly sunk, like an iceberg, in the warming waters of my brain. All that is solid melts into air, as Marx (or whoever) said. I supposedly read these four Nicholson Baker books less than twelve months ago, and now my dominant memory is a section in The Mezzanine that describes the various sounds adult men make while defecating in corporate bathrooms. I recall that the word “spatterings” appears in all its horrifying, onomatopoeic glory, but remember the poop joke is not my most cherished literary principle.
There isn’t any inherent reason to worry about forgetfulness, of course. Reading is reading; what you remember can seem a gift and what you forget just one of many things that, slipping away, never did you any harm. But—as a reader, as a teacher, and as a PhD student in the thick of preparations for my comprehensive exams—a large part of the pleasure (and struggle) I experience with books relates directly to my capacity to remember the words that appear in them. And despite the fine arguments of writers like Joshua Foer in his recent Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, I’m not looking for brute memorization, i.e. Xeroxing Shakespeare’s complete works with my brain. I keep notes when it counts, after all.
Perhaps it’s from reading too much (lately, it’s felt like too much, as I burn through a booklist that is supposed to represent the foundation for my future academic career), but the best tactic is to rely on the accidental art of memory, which patterns information organically, without much pre-set strategy. When I recently read an essay on ruins by Geoff Dyer, for example, his comment that the remains of ancient buildings suggest the triumph of space over time reminded me immediately of a passage from W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz that I thought I had forgotten: “We know by instinct that outsize buildings cast the shadow of their own destruction before them, and are designed from the first with an eye to their later existence as ruins.” Now, I hope, I’ll remember both these poetic conclusions. This kind of recall depends, actually, on the same digressive energy that both Dyer and Sebald lean on in their writing. And anyway, the great virtue of underlining sentences in the books you read is the opposite of what it seems to be: you’re giving yourself permission to forget all the non-underlined bits. As I become more comfortable with the forgetting, I realize the shape of the remembering.
The situation actually seems both grimmer and more hopeful when I glance at the list of books I’ve already read thus far in 2011. There are 31 books there, and I can remember, on average, a single line or phrase from probably 11 of them. For others—particularly for books which make a sustained argument—I can remember the logic of the thinking, but would have to go back to my notes to recall the specific turns of vocabulary that make the arguments stick. On the one hand, it seems like terrific luck to have retained particular lines at all. On the other, I can’t help but feel sad in the face Harold Bloom’s prodigious memory. In a recent video interview with The New York Times, Bloom reeled off some lines of Hart Crane’s poetry with such perfect rhythm and confidence I felt equal parts charmed and inspired to jealous rage, which is not the point of (most) Modernist poetry.
But if the issue is my happiness as a reader, I take comfort in a quotation provided by critic Eric Santner in his 2006 book, On Creaturely Life, a study of, among other writers, W.G. Sebald. Santner mentions, as an aside, a comment from philosopher Jonathan Lear, who writes that “…we need to go back to an older English usage of happiness in terms of happenstance: the experience of chance things working out well rather than badly.” Happiness as good luck makes perfect sense, particularly if you think of the word hapless, which roughly means luckless, without hap. So, by contrast, to be lucky, is—by substitution—to be happy. In other languages, like German and Dutch, lucky and happy already go by the same word. That I or anyone else is fortunate enough to remember whatever books we’ve read therefore appears to be a textbook case of happiness. Even so glorious a wet blanket as Friedrich Nietzsche already had some sense of happiness as this game of chance. In Beyond Good and Evil, he comments, “a thought comes when ‘it’ wants, not when ‘I’ want.” Thought, like memory, has its own life; we are just its devotees. If a German philosopher who proclaimed the death of God can find the exit door here, then I’ll take the accidental hap of memory, if nothing else.
This is all such a stupid luxury, of course, hand-wringing over the proper way to read and remember. And the picture of the reading life and its haunted memory that I prefer now is from the book I have just finished: Geoff Dyer’s novel, Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi. In the second half of the novel, the unnamed narrator observes two fellow travelers and friends and comments, “Earlier that day, as I was coming back from Manikarnika in a boat, I’d glanced up at the terrace of the Lotus Lounge and seen them there, arms round each other. As the boat skulked upstream, I looked up from time to time like some sad fuck in a Henry James novel, relieved that they’d not seen me seeing them.” Even if he can’t remember which sad fuck, the narrator’s memory tells him that he’s part of a grand tradition. How lucky.
(Image by C. Max Magee)
“On Repetition” was delivered as a craft talk at the 2010 Tin House Writers Workshop.
Not long ago, James Wood wrote a review of Geoff Dyer’s Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi that struck me as a bit myopic. It wasn’t what Wood said about Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi that seemed short-sighted to me – it was what he said about the rest of Dyer’s career. Wood just didn’t get it, he admitted. None of Dyer’s books seemed to fit together – they were all about different things! And they’d all been executed in different ways too, almost as though they weren’t even by the same writer! What’s a critic supposed to do when a writer keeps on trying new things? Read it all? Sheesh! Who’s got time for that? Don’t you people understand deadlines?
I’m picking on James Wood here – and I like James Wood, I think the literary world is vastly richer for James Wood’s voice and presence in it – because he sort of duffed this one. There is a kind of common denominator in Dyer’s work, and tapping into it, I think, is central to coming to an understanding of at least one way to approach the craft of creative nonfiction, and it says something too about the state of literature today.
Also not long ago, Geoff Dyer wrote a review of Don Delillo’s Point Omega that was also myopic. Dyer complained that what Delillo had done in Point Omega had been done before and better, by Delillo himself. This is interesting not just because it’s the exact opposite of Wood’s criticism of Dyer. It’s interesting because it’s a crime – if it’s a crime – of which Geoff Dyer is also guilty. That guy whose books are a problem because they aren’t anything like one another has also made the mistake of saying the same thing over and over. I’m quite sure this accounts for Geoff Dyer’s wide-ranging popularity.
As I see it, Dyer has two modes as a writer. First he has a kind of rakish mode in which he serves himself up as a leaner, wimpier version of James Bond, that post-Empire Brit superspy who shuttles around the world bedding as many women as he can. Truth be told, Dyer’s travel writing can seem a bit like this at times. But of course while James Bond saves the planet again and again – reminding the rest of the world that, while the Empire might be over, and England has surely seen her best days, the world still needs her (which suggests in turn that James Bond is a kind of Frodo Baggins with a tuxedo and a Beretta) – Dyer, by contrast, in his rakish mode, just seems to limp around and hang out and say funny, foolish things and get girls anyway. But the Dyer/Bond parallel is there. Don’t get me wrong. I like Geoff Dyer, and I even like the rakish mode of Dyer. I like it even though it creates arguments every time my girlfriend and I take turns reading Dyer passages back and forth in the bathtub. But it’s also this Dyer mode that is susceptible to repetition. I’m not going to list examples here (and I guess I’m not surprised that Wood didn’t note them), because that’s not what this essay is trying to do, but suffice it to say that Dyer’s guilt over having hiked back across terrain his work had already mapped enabled him to recognize when Delillo was doing the same thing. One can imagine Dyer’s stream of thought: Ah-ha, Delillo, I see you! I see what you’re doing. I do it myself from time to time, though maybe I don’t recognize it until later, and even though I can acknowledge that there might be good reasons why a writer would repeat himself, I’m not, in a spirit of writerly camaraderie, going to let it pass this time. No! Instead, I will make a big fucking deal about it in the New York Times because that’s what James Fucking Wood just did to me.
Perhaps now is a good time to mention that I think the literary world is vastly richer for Geoff Dyer’s voice and presence in it.
All of which adds up to a kind of contradictory set of truths about books and publishing in the abstract: don’t repeat yourself, and don’t write books that are too different from one another. Other writers will pillory you for the first, and publishers will be more than happy to pigeonhole you from the moment you achieve anything like success. Blow out your advance? Great. Now write the same exact book again.
Thinking about books and publishing in the abstract was exactly what I was doing around about 1999, when I was a decade out from my degree at Iowa, had a dozen short stories but no collection published, and the pages of a failed novel sat scattered all over my crappy apartment as though to collect the droppings of a huge collection of homing pigeons that never came home. I was working then as a part-time casino dealer in Atlantic City, and though I’d once turned up my nose at nonfiction, I was now at least trying to turn up my nose at a career as a casino dealer in Atlantic City. After a not inconsiderable effort I had managed to sell an idea for a book of nonfiction. I say I’d been thinking in the abstract because it wasn’t really until I’d signed the contract – nonfiction tending to sell by way of book proposal (the writer is a kind of sub-contractor, perhaps like a plumber who shows up only occasionally and always late once he’s so underbid his competitors that he’s barely making enough to feed himself, let alone be on time) – not until then did it really occur to me that I’d actually have to write a book of nonfiction. This realization manifested itself physiologically as panic, a sudden peculiar sensation all across the body: it felt, instantaneously, as though every piece of myself was being worked on by some occult vibration, that every part of me had begun to jiggle with manic energy, and every cell, every nucleus, every mitochondria, seemed on the brink of imploding like a cathode-ray tube or a dwarf star going supernova. In other words, I fucking freaked out.
In a way, it was good that I lived in Atlantic City at this time. I’d had a number of writer friends, of course, from previous stints in graduate school, but after I went to Atlantic City these relationships had tended to fade, as is perhaps only natural. I say this is good because it meant that I had only one writer friend I could call and fucking freak out to. And I did. This friend had written several books by then, and what I did – working on the theory that previous experience writing books gives one insight as to how the process can and should be embarked upon – was call him and ask, well, so, how do you write a book? My friend didn’t know. My friend had no idea how to write a book. It turned out that he had managed to write several books without ever either acquiring the first thing one should know or formulating any general principle about writing books. Our conversation quickly became a discussion of how on earth he was going to figure out how to write his next book. When I hung up, I was left alone with my book contract and my panic in my empty roost in Atlantic City.
So here’s what I did: I invented the idea of the book.
The book was to be about chess – the game, chess. In Atlantic City, I’d gotten to know an African American chess master named Glenn Umstead, a kind of quirky guy with a difficult personality who was nevertheless one of just forty black men in the history of the world to have achieved chess’s master ranking. That’s sounds pretty straightforward, but saying you’re going to write a buddy story/subculture book – which is pretty much what I said in my book proposal – is a whole lot easier than coming up with a way of actually executing it. I’m exaggerating a bit when I say I invented the idea of the book, but that’s how it felt as I was doing it – it felt as though I was inventing literature wholesale. And that moment when I acquired my essential strategy was recorded in the book itself:
…I wanted to write something about the game. But I still didn’t know what it was.
My relationship with Glenn began to change. Now that I was a lay historian, our bond became a version of the classic conflict between player of the game and student of the game… We were an even odder couple now. He was black and I was white, and we were like chessmen opposed on a board that was the game itself.
From there, the book came not easily but possibly – it was possible now. What I’d learned was that the way to write a book was to let the subject matter tell you how it ought to be written about.
And it turns out that’s the common denominator of Geoff Dyer’s other mode as a writer: the mode when he stops trying to lay girls and gets down to the hard work of reading, writing, and thinking. A couple examples. Dyer’s book-length fret over D.H. Lawrence, Out of Sheer Rage, emphasizes on a number of occasions that its method is lifted from its subject: “If this book aspires to the condition of notes that is because, for me, Lawrence’s prose is at its best when it comes closest to notes.” And in introducing the partially imagined narratives of But Beautiful: A Book About Jazz, Dyer again lets the subject inspire the form he’ll use to examine it:
These episodes are part of a common repertory of anecdote and information – “standards” in other words, and I do my own versions of them, stating the identifying facts more or less briefly and then improvising around them, departing from them completely in some cases. This may mean being less than faithful to the truth but, once again, it keeps faith with the improvisational prerogatives of the form.
There are many examples of this outside of Dyer. One is Andrei Codrescu’s recent The Post Human Dada Guide, which executes a Dadaist encyclopedia of Dada. Another is Jay Kirk’s soon to be released Kingdom Under Glass, which reassambles the facts of the biography of taxidermist Carl Akeley so as to create an Akeley-inspired diorama of his life. But what’s already apparent is that this divining of one’s method from one’s subject is not only a way to make a book seem possible as you approach it, it’s also a way to avoid repetition, to bring to every work the excitement of invention while retaining some essential version of the self: the common denominator of one’s books being not their subject matter, but their organizing intellect, their animating spirit – their author, after all.
Not long after my book about chess appeared and chalked up a handful of prominent, promising reviews, my editor asked me to come to New York. She bought me lunch, chatted me up. We talked about the future. She wanted me to write another book about chess. “Maybe a chess mystery,” she said, jiggling her shoulders in what was either a fair imitation of a stripper twirling her pasties or a hopeful anticipation of the reaction readers might have to the book she proposed. I actually considered this offer for a moment. There is a true story about a famous chess player being called in to assist with a serial killer investigation. But that moment didn’t last long. I realized almost at once that I would simply be repeating myself.
And the truth is, I don’t want to be a writer like that: a writer so imprisoned by their subject matter – chess writer, food writer, religion writer, etc. – that if they ever depart from it, if their publishers ever let them depart from it, you can be pretty sure that their departures will have only that level of appeal, the appeal of something attempting, straining, struggling and probably failing to branch out. I don’t think that’s the ideal literary life. And yet, to reiterate, this is something writers are more or less forever doing – repeating themselves, writing figurative if not literal sequels, trying to please again and again the same readers they pleased once – and other writers who are guilty of the same thing admonish them for it, again and again.
So I have tried to be a little different. I went on to write a Jamesian biography of William James, and I cringed anew when my (new) editor told me that he wished the book had been a bit more like my first. Whatever, dude. From there, I set out to write a history of utopian thought and literature that would stylistically emulate Thomas More’s original Utopia, which blended a kind of analytical discourse with what scholars called “speaking pictures” – narrative.
There were two basic problems with this. First, I had already written about utopian concepts. I had grown up on a street called Utopia Road in a master-planned community, “Utopia Road” was the title of both my MFA thesis and one of my early short stories, and, to be fully honest, there was palpable utopian fascination in both my chess and James books. In other words, I was repeating myself. No, no – worse than that! I was repeating the shit out of myself! The second problem was that Thomas More had been repeating, too. He was repeating Lucian and Plato and Erasmus and Machiavelli. And soon enough, others were repeating More, repeating Utopia. In fact, others repeated Utopia so often that it became its own genre of literature – a genre so powerful that “utopia” not only became a word, it completed the demigod leap from noun to adjective. You’ll probably better appreciate Thomas More’s Utopia if I tell you not that it’s the most influential novel in the history of mankind, but that it’s the only book whose author is known that has its own index entry in the Chicago Manual of Style. It’s pretty damn impressive – and it’s all a function of repetition. Sort of.
And there’s another problem too – a third problem – because thinking about these two modes of Utopia, discourse and narrative, makes it pretty clear that I’ve been unfair to Geoff Dyer, that his two modes, critic and rake, basically fall under this same description. Indeed, it seems to me now that Dyer’s entire career can be understood as a Utopia-like toggling back and forth – sometimes within a single book, sometimes from book to book – between narrative and analytic modes, and this is what James Wood couldn’t see, couldn’t appreciate, and which I came to appreciate only as a function of the panic that set in when I had to stop thinking about books in the abstract and actually write one.
In 1936, James Agee, two years out from a book of poems and “on loan from the Federal Government,” was assigned to write a series of documentary articles about Alabama tenant farmers for Fortune magazine. One can be pretty sure that Agee’s editor had some ideas about what he wanted to print – his readers had certain expectations based on what they’d read in the magazine before, and Agee’s assignment was to repeat that formula. That’s not what he did. Instead, he produced hundreds of pages of wildly poetic, passionate description of a few families from which he had strived to maintain no objective distance at all. The series of articles was promptly canceled; Let Us Now Praise Famous Men was not published until 1941; sales remained dismal until the book was rediscovered in 1960.
What’s relevant about Let Us Now Praise Famous Men for us, in this essay, is that right in the middle of it Agee pauses in his narrative and delivers a lengthy discussion of what he’s trying to do. It is the bit of analytical discourse to which he has toggled from his narrative descriptions of tenant farmer life. As a kind of set piece, this section of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, written long before Truman Capote and John McPhee and Geoff Dyer, serves as almost a post-facto manifesto of “creative nonfiction.” This manifesto insists on a stark distinction between creative prose and journalism, and in discussing an attempt to describe a hypothetical street it distinguishes Agee’s methodology from “naturalism:”
As nearly as possible in words (which, even by grace of genius, would not be very near) you try to give the street in its own terms: that is to say, either in the terms in which you…see it, or in a reduction and depersonalization into terms which will as nearly as possible be the “private,” singular terms of that asphalt, those neon letters, those and all other items combined, in that alternation, that simultaneity, of flat blank tremendously constructed chords and of immensely elaborate counterpoint which is the street itself.
I take Agee to mean that subjects ought to reveal themselves to you, that the writer’s job, the writer’s craft, is to be attentive to that which shall be rendered. A street will reveal to you the terms, the vocabulary, with which it ought to described just as surely as an abstract concept like William James or taxidermy or chess will proffer its proper strategy after some lengthy period of measured, painful, and above all, literary, meditation. Agee goes on to argue that words necessarily fail, and in so doing he echoes – or rather, anticipates – Dyer’s hope for what a creative use of language and form can bring to a consideration of jazz:
Words cannot embody; they can only describe. But a certain kind of artist, whom we will distinguish from others as a poet rather than a prose writer, despises this fact about words or his medium, and continually brings words as near as he can to an illusion of embodiment. In doing so he accepts a falsehood but makes, of a sort in any case, better art.
Ostensibly, this is an essay about the craft of creative nonfiction. But I think what I’m ultimately trying to say is that it’s dangerous to say too much too definitively about craft in the abstract. If you feel absolutely overwhelmed by a project – that’s good. If you have absolutely no idea how or where to begin – that’s good too. No matter where one is in one’s career, a writer, it seems to me, ought to feel more or less completely at sea as they begin to approach the question or the subject they hope to address. There are two kinds of repetition. There is the kind we find inside our work, the themes that burble up lava-like from our subconscious again and again, and which we cannot resist and should not, I think, criticize in others. And then there is the repetition that ought to be resisted, that which gives us a program, a strategy that can be applied to any subject. This we should criticize in others. Art should never be the result of habit, it should strive eternally for the fresh and the new even when we work in forms we did not invent. Craft, we should vigilantly remind ourselves, means to make something absolutely new where before there was nothing at all.
The late American philosopher Robert Nozick begins his tome, Philosophical Explanations, with this paragraph:
I, too, seek an unreadable book: urgent thoughts to grapple with in agitation and excitement, revelations to be transformed by or to transform, a book incapable of being read straight through, a book even to bring reading to a stop. I have not found that book, or attempted it. Still, I wrote and thought in awareness of it, in the hope this book would bask in its light. That hope would be arrogant if it weren’t self-fulfilling–to face towards the light, even from a great distance, is to be warmed
I first read that opening paragraph in 1981 when Philosophical Explanations was published. Thirty years later and I have still not completed Nozick’s 650 page “essay.” Despite his protestations, Nozick did perhaps accomplish that self-fulfilling hope of which he speaks. Perhaps he did write the unreadable book, though I seriously doubt it. This reader is not throwing in the towel just yet. The book is still on my side table and every so often the bookmark gets lifted out of the cramped dusty seam on the left side of a page and removed to the cramped dusty seam on the right side of the page. I call that progress.
I was thinking about this today as I was flying home from my daughter’s graduation. I do my best thinking on airplanes. It is ironic–and probably of consequence–that I now avoid air travel as best I’m able. I am obviously missing a great deal of good thinking as a result. When I do fly, I keep my Moleskine handy because I’m smart enough to know that I’m only smart enough on a plane–and I don’t want to miss anything. (The great Bruce Chatwin was a Moleskine user. When I became aware of this fact fifteen years ago I was in London and searched high and low for a shop(pe) that carried it, figuring that if it was good enough for Chatwin, it would certainly be good enough for me. But alas, the Moleskine was no more–defunct, kaput. What a success story, up from the ashes, phoenix-like, the Moleskine is now the Kleenex of journals.) As I was saying, I was thinking of Nozick and this passage today. Specifically, I was contemplating this after investing a year, June to June, reading and reviewing books for a literary blog. The year began with Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 and ended with David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, maybe the two best book-ended modern examples of what Nozick sought, the unreadable book. But Nozick was super smart and I’m sure if I made my way through these books, he would have done so with just a modicum of the energies I mustered. No, they are not unreadable books.
I read Bolaño and Wallace, along with 27 other books during these twelve months. And I wrote a review of each one. A person can learn something exercising such discipline. I determined today, five-hundred fifty miles an hour, 30,000 feet up, I needed to explore what I’d learned. So, walk with me, if you so desire, while I try to figure that out.
First, the reading list June, 2009 to June, 2010:
2666 by Roberto Bolaño
Shadow Country by Peter Matthiessen
Snakeskin Road by James Braziel
Self’s Murder by Bernhard Schlink
Heroic Measures by Jill Ciment
Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi by Geoff Dyer
An Underachiever’s Diary by Benjamin Anastas
Homer and Langley by E.L. Doctorow
Under This Unbroken Sky by Shandi Mitchell
Last Night in Twisted River by John Irving
This is Water by David Foster Wallace
The Boy Next Door by Irene Sabatini
Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon
After The Fire, A Still Small Voice by Evie Wyld
Supreme Courtship by Christopher Buckley
Johnny Future by Steve Abee
The Convalescent by Jessica Anthony
Manhood for Amateurs by Michael Chabon
Noah’s Compass by Anne Tyler
Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout
The Interrogative Mood by Padgett Powell
Zen and Now by Mark Richardson
The Truth About Love by Josephine Hart
The Infinities by John Banville
The Last Station by Jay Parini
The Shell Collector by Anthony Doerr
What Becomes by A.L. Kennedy
Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
There is quite a mix here, from the aforementioned Bolaño to Wallace and everything in between. There are serious books on the list. Olive Kitteridge won the Pulitzer, for example. And Padgett Powell, John Banville and Peter Matthiessen rank high on the serious meter of contemporary fiction. Pynchon, Tyler, Doctorow and Irving are literary names of distinction and note. Fresher names like Chabon and Hart, Doerr and Kennedy were unknown to me and I was powerfully impressed by what they can do, putting pen to paper, as it used to be called. Buckley is a hoot and Parini an education. What I’m trying to get at here, is the general across-the-board nature of these readings. No specialist here, I read with the modest distinction of the simply curious. There is a little something for everyone on this list and that affords me the latitude to speak generally about the experience.
I am a reader first. If I were an addict, I would get high and while high, presumably, worry about where I was to get my next fix. Reading is not all that different, I think. As a reader, I am always looking over the binding thinking about the next read, in some instances, longing for it. Some books, like some highs, are better than others. But even with not-so-good books–and there where two this past year I did not see to completion–I will come back to the drug, seeking the next high. I will always be a reader. Of this I am certain.
A few years ago I did a project on the homeless in Baltimore. I spent a year talking to, interviewing and photographing men living on the streets of the nation’s ninth largest city. Ultimately, I called the project, One Hundred Gentlemen of Baltimore. Of the 100 men I worked with, there was one in particular, Lonnie, who stood out. Lonnie lived in the bushes behind the Barnes and Noble bookstore in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. This was not a random location, for Lonnie was a reader. “Reading is my drug of choice,” he told me. “It changes your mind and it’s legal.” That’s why he chose to camp behind the B&N. They tossed books into the dumpster and he would dumpster dive at night and come up with armfuls of new reads. “The life-style [of homelessness] is addictive,” he said. “I have no responsibilities, no bills, no commitments. It’s the life I’ve chosen. It gives me the time to do what I want. My thing is books.” This is an extreme case of being a reader, of giving the discipline–for being a serious reader is, indeed, a discipline–one’s entire heart and soul. It is said that Erasmus bought books first then, with whatever money was left, would buy food. Erasmus would understand Lonnie, I am sure.
I cannot claim such heroics. Early in my marriage, before we had money that could in any fashion be considered discretionary, I bought books and snuck them into the house. I didn’t hide booze or drugs, I hid books. I should not have spent the little money we had that way. But it simply could not be avoided. The books listed above were all given to me by the publishers. I gave up not a penny, which sort of gets me back to balance from the early days. One knows he has arrived when he gets his books for free.
This year, the year I’m currently in, I’m reading selections of my own choosing. Some are old books, some I’m reading for the second time. There is a lot of biography on the list. After a year of reading mostly fiction I have a hankering for being grounded in time and space. It will be a study of a different sort, equally rewarding, I hope. Last year, I chose a few of the books I reviewed, but many were suggestions by my editor, not assignments in the strict sense, just books suggested because of my literary interests. In the main, they were all reading adventures, set upon without map or compass. That is to say, I read without much knowledge of book or, in some cases, author. It’s sort of like a blind tasting of reading, an idea I find compelling.
The reading experience is different when a review is due. One pays attention, takes notes, attempts to understand the chronology, the narrative, taking nothing for granted; glossing over is a no-no, as is basic laziness. The reviewer can’t be given completely to the story, but must maintain an objective perspective. It is different from the untethered reading experience. But these are practices which, I believe, reward all types of reading and are good to exercise in general. I got in the habit a few years ago of always having a pencil in my hand while I read. It was a prop mainly, just a device to remind me to pay attention–sort of like having a camera in your hands when out on the town. There were a couple books, however, where I said, Screw That and gave myself the experience. 2666 was a book which fell into this category. Some things in life you must just simply give in to. I don’t regret my weakness.
When someone finds out you review books, they will ask for recommendations, so the thoughtful reader-reviewer must be thinking about appeal and accessibility should this happen. For instance, a friend recently read David Foster Wallace’s This is Water. She loved it. I loved it. It is a pure gem, but is deceptive, leading the first-time Wallace reader to believe he writes everything like This is Water, which is concise and pithy. She asked me if she should next read Infinite Jest. I hedged. I didn’t know her well enough to know if she was the reader for IJ. Wallace once said that the reader wants to be reminded of how smart he or she is. I can understand that. He didn’t, however, worry should the reader not feel smart, or worse, feel stupid. We all know that feeling, no? I loaned her my copy and told her to give it a once over to see if it appealed to her. She was going on a trip and decided that carrying a three pound book didn’t make much sense. Things work out in odd ways sometimes.
Nabokov, as close a reader as “close reading” ever produced, commented somewhere that a book is well written if it makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. That, I think, is as good a measure of the literary experience as I can think of. I read some books last year where I would pause and quietly declare, yes! The gooseflesh crawled. The hairs stood at attention. I’m not a golfer, but I think it–the reader’s yes! sensation–is a sensation somewhat akin to the clear-knock sound of a well hit ball. It’s what keeps you coming back again and again. Susan Sontag said something that strikes close to home for me. She said that literature “enlarges your sense of human possibility, of what human nature is, of what happens in the world. It’s a creator of inwardness.” One might deduce from this that literature, or the broader artistic experience, is a manner of completing ourselves. Not to sound too high-minded, but I seek the experience where art and my life combine and the distinction between the two erodes. That is why I read. I hope for the experience of which Sontag spoke: the creation of inwardness. Perhaps to some degree I fear myself lacking and wish for more. Again, we all must sometimes carry that weight. Might that be the impetus for all human striving and art?–but that is a different conversation.
In my reading, I was alert for Nabokovian hair-raising art. I found it more times than I would have hoped, which encourages me. Consider this sentence, for example, from John Banville’s The Infinities: “Time too is a difficulty. For her it has two modes. Either it drags itself painfully along like something dragging itself in its own slime over bits of twigs and dead leaves on a forest floor, or it speeds past, in jumps and flickers, like the scenes on a spool of film clattering madly through a broken projector.” I find that to be a surprisingly lovely metaphor. Or, this pithy gem from Anne Tyler: “She collected and polished resentments as if it were some sort of hobby.” Wonderful. And then there was the time while reading 2666 that I realized I was three pages into one single sentence, a Nile-like flowing stream of words, words like water pouring over polished granite. It was beautiful and I was in awe.
It is not just about the prose, though that is something important and inescapable. I can better stomach a poorly constructed story, the brick and mortar of which, the prose, is well mixed than other way around. The fact is, if the author knows how to mix mortar, she is likely good at construction too. Going back to golf, if you can smash it down the fairway, you’d better have a good short game once you get on the green. It’s been my experience that if a writer can put together words in an appealing fashion, she can also string together a story of those appealing words. It rarely works the other way around.
Hemingway said that you knew a book was good if you were sad that it came to an end. I wager, given the opportunity, you can say the same thing about life. To me that is the point. Reading is an extension, a way of putting out feelers like a spider plant seeking new soil. It is the manner in which we, to Sontag’s point, create inwardness. Unfortunately, this didn’t happen enough in this reader’s year. Too often I grew tired and wanted it over. By Hemingway’s measure, when this occurred, these books weren’t good. But I don’t think it was the book’s fault necessarily. It was more likely an impatient reader champing at the bit. That is a problem I have. I am learning to savor as best I can. Reading Infinite Jest was a good exercise at savoring. I read only ten pages a day. Ten pages a day for a book 1038 pages long. Do the math.
I have moved to Maine from out of state and my library is following me slowly, volume by volume. I didn’t have to move all at once so have taken pains and culled through my library. My plan has been to bring along with me only those books I wish to keep. My library consists largely of books read. But there is a surprising number of books purchased and shelved for a future read. This process of moving and reviewing my library has afforded me this knowledge: There is nothing so profound as an unread library. I don’t think many people understand that. They don’t recognize the potential for inward creation inherent in the unread library. It is, as I said, profound, and speaks to the suggestion that we all think better of ourselves than we’ve yet to realize. A writer cannot help but read a good book and be envious. A reader cannot help but read a good book. Period. Read on.